Today, I stood at the front of a classroom and watched fifty squirming fourth and fifth graders enter single-file for their special presentation in North Kenwood/Oakwood Elementary School. As the teacher managed to seat them in perfect rows on the floor, my co-producer Sharat Raju leaned over and whispered, “These kids are young!”
He was right. They could not have been more than nine or ten years old. My mouth opened to give my usual introduction – after all, this was our third year on tour with our film Divided We Fall– but I stopped short. I had never had an audience so young. Would they be able to understand a story about hate violence after terrorism attacks? Would a room of African-American school children from the south side of Chicago be able to connect with the stories of Sikhs and Muslims beaten up after 9/11?
They looked at me, eager and open and very curious. I decided to follow their lead.
“What country do you think we’re from?” I heard myself ask.
Not exactly waiting to be called on, they shouted out guesses, “India! Japan! Brazil! Afghanistan! Pakistan! Iraq! Mexico!” (They certainly proved that they were learning geography…)
The excitement created by breaking classroom protocol gave way to frustration as they scanned their minds for more countries around the planet. Then finally someone said – “America?”
“Ohhhhh, yeah…” They replied. We explained that although our families are from India, we, like them, were born in the United States – Sharat just miles from Hyde Park.
“What we’re going to talk about today is the difference between how we see one another – and how we want to be seen,” I began.
We had been invited here by the University of Chicago’s South Asian Center to give a series of presentations about our film Divided We Fall, the first feature documentary chronicling hate violence in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001. Our host and long-time friend Currun Singh (right) had arranged for us to present before all age groups, thanks to co-sponsorship of the Center for Race, Politics, and Culture and the Human Rights Program.
Earlier that morning, we had screened the film in the Max Palevsky Cinema before three hundred middle and high school students from seven schools on the south side of Chicago. Later that day, I presented a workshop to school teachers called “Race and Religion in a Post-9/11 World,” in partnership with the Office of Language and Cultural Education at Chicago Public Schools. That evening, we screened the film again for the general public.
In more than 150 film screenings nation-wide since we premiered in 2006, high school and college audiences had always been my favorite. They always asked the best questions. That morning, students asked: “After you went on this journey after 9/11, what changed for you?” “What would your grandfather think of you making this documentary?” “Was there ever a time that the racism made you want to quit?”
Afterward, a Latina student confided in us that her parents wanted her to become a housewife, another that her family only wanted her to do medicine. “But we want to study humanities and the arts!” they exclaimed. “We want to do what you did!”
Although risking parental wrath, it has been an honor to tell a story that inspires other young people to tell their own. We had wanted the film to resonate with students who like us, had come of age in post-9/11 America. We had never imagined however, that our film would one day teach children about Sept. 11th for the first time.
This appeared to be the case in our classroom at North Kenwood/Oakwood Elementary School – where the kids were only one or two when 9/11 happened. So, I did the only thing that made sense. I told my story.
“I was a twenty-year old college student on September 11, 2001. As a third-generation Sikh American, I had deep roots in America: my grandfather came to these shores nearly one hundred years ago. But the moment the towers fell, we were not seen the way we saw ourselves. The picture of Osama bin Laden was held up as our nation’s new enemy. He had brown skin like me. And he wore a turban like my grandfather.
“Four days later, a Sikh man Balbir Singh Sodhi was killed because of his turban – the first of nineteen hate murders across the country. It was as if an uncle had been killed.” The kids gasped. One girl even buried her head in her hands. I then shared with them the next brave thing I did – disappear into my room for days and read all the Harry Potter books. The kids giggled.
“Between page 277 and 278, I remembered the stories my grandfather used to tell me as a kid – stories of strength and resilience of my Sikh ancestors – and it compelled me to grab my camera and cross the country to make this film. Do you want to see some of it?”
We showed them scenes from the film, including one with Samir Akhter, a Muslim boy about the same age as the kids in the classroom. He was called “bin Laden’s son” by the other kids at school. “I’m not a bad guy and I don’t want to be a bad guy. I’m a good guy. And I don’t want to go to jail.”
The students quickly grasped the question of identity, that Samir was able to be both Muslim and American equally, and recalled moments in their own lives when they too were treated as outsiders. This was my chance to go deeper.
“Close your eyes.” (They did, but many peeked.)
“Now, try to remember a moment when people treated you as if you did not belong. Where do you feel it? Describe the feeling in your body.”
Some said they had difficulty breathing, that they felt tightness in their chests. One girl said she felt outside of herself.
“Hold that sensation in your memory and your body for a moment. Now go to a place of warmth, into the arms of someone you love – a sister or brother or parent. Now, do you notice if anything in your body changed?”
This time, they described the tightness melting, giving way to warmth and openness in their chests or bellies or hands. Many said that thought of the safety of their bedroom or home. But one kid said, “The bathroom.” Everyone laughed.
“It’s quiet in there and I can be alone and think of my friends and that makes me feel good,” he explained.
“That’s right!” I said. “This is a tool you can use anytime. When something bad happens, let yourself feel the pain in your body. Otherwise, it might get stuck in there. But don’t stay there, because who wants to end up bitter and angry? The next step is to go to the love. But there’s a third step. Create something good out of it!”
“Like you did?”
“Right, but it doesn’t have to be a film. It can be anything that tells your story.”
“Writing!” “Dancing!” “Singing!” “Painting!” “Texting!” And everyone laughed.
“Now, when something makes you feel bad, what should you do?” I asked.
“Feel the pain!” They shouted.
“Go to the love!”
“And the final step?”
“Create something good out of it!”
Everyone cheered, and the class was over.
I had been worried that heavy subjects like terrorism, hate, and healing would be inappropriate or at least incomprehensible for such young children. I was wrong. These kids taught me that every human being, even a 9-year old child, knows what it is like not to belong – and can reclaim the power to transform that hurt and rage into creative action.
It is never too early to help children develop the power to empathize, cope, and understand that we all strive to be seen the way we see ourselves. I will always be grateful to the fourth and fifth graders of North Kenwood/Oakwood Elementary School for teaching me that lesson.
Thank you to our long-time friend, kindred spirit, fellow artist and activist Currun Singh (below with Sharat Raju and me) for making our trip possible!